[Preface: There is no argument for an objective superior. Steaks, hamburger and sloppy joes are all great. But to not know what you’re eating is only letting yourself down ….]

Any avid music fan has probably had the argument with a friend (or foe) about what the best way is, in terms of format, to listen to music. Since Napster shattered the customs of the music world in the late 90’s mp3s have become synonymous with contemporary music. The iPod has since come along and informed us we no longer needed shelves for our music collection, just a pocket. These developments are currently pushing the CD format closer and closer to its inevitable extinction. Yet ironically, as the CD slowly dies, vinyl records are storming back into popularity. So it appears that while the MP3 has unquestionably made music more portable and “share-able” (it is truly awesome to be able to bring your entire music collection on a plane ride!), it doesn’t seem to have what it takes to wipe out other formats completely.

So lets take a look at the science behind music formats and how we hear in general. An educated listener is a better listener indeed, and you may be surprised by what you didn’t know. We must start by examining sound in general.

All right, lets get some simple things straight about the way sound works for us humans and our brains. In general the human ear picks up frequencies between 20 hertz (Hz) and 20,000 Hz; hertz meaning the number of vibrations per second (“sound” is simply our brains perceiving minuscule air pressure changes, or vibrations). Yet the truth is most adults are only capable of hearing up to around 16k Hz (a little higher for females, you lucky ladies) because we lose the ability to perceive higher frequencies as we age. Sounds do indeed exist below 20 Hz (think of when you feel deep bass without actually hearing it) and upwards well beyond 20K Hz (think of a dog whistle, we don’t hear it but the pups sure do). So while we can pick up the most important swath of the sound-spectrum, there does exists a great deal of sonic information we just never hear because of the limits of our ears & brain. [Note: this phenomena also exists with our eyes, we only see a tiny portion of the electro-magnetic spectrum, which we call light & color]

So why care about these sounds our brains’ cannot even perceive, what the heck does that have to do with musical formats and listening to your tunes? Again, we have to look at some science basics (bear with me!). Sound is mathematical. Lets say you play an A major chord on an instrument. The fundamental frequency of an A major is 440 Hz, so that will be the most present frequency we hear, yet it will not be the only. Here is the math; that A note will also create and sound out its harmonics (or “overtones”), which are always multiples of itself. This means that 440 Hz A note will create another “harmonic” at 880 Hz (440 x 2), another at 1320 Hz (440 x 3), and another one at 1760 Hz (440 x 4) and it goes on and on. Harmonics are a large part of what make notes played by instruments interesting to our ears. Because different instruments (or vocal chords for that matter) will inherently create different harmonic relations to the fundamental frequency, this is in turn the reason why there exists a difference in sound from instrument to instrument, even when they play the same mathematically identical musical note. This difference is referred to as an instrument’s “timbre”. Think of a computer created “true tone”, one with no harmonics; it’s a shrill and sterile sound. So, consider this question; if the chords and notes that make up our music all create harmonics that are out of our hearing range, do those sounds have any affect upon what we do hear? Hold onto that thought, however, we can now begin our discussion upon music formats. [Read More]